Can 2021 be the year of civic commitment? The disasters and unequal suffering in 2020 spurred many people to help their neighbors and join mutual aid networks. How can we capture that spirit to create lasting civic engagement? What can local governments, foundations or nonprofits do to help foster these relationships?
2020 saw an outpouring of neighborliness, as people helped their neighbors meet their needs during the pandemic, wildfires and other disasters. Many of these efforts evolved into mutual aid networks, as chronicled by Jia Tolentino in a New Yorker magazine article in May. By the end of the year, though, much of the energy for these kinds of efforts, along with media attention, had waned.
The good news is that, for many of the individuals who took part in these activities, the uplifted spirit of being charitable and community-minded will stay in their minds and hopefully justify similar acts in the future.
At the same time, are there things that institutions—government, foundations, nonprofits, etc.—could do to encourage these community-spirited activities and organizations to continue? Here are a few thoughts:
Institutions can play an important role in creating the infrastructure needed to support civic engagement. Examples include the creation or promotion of social networking mechanisms like www.Nextdoor.com, block parties, neighborhood watch, neighborhood and block organizations. These strategies can also be aimed at particular segments of the community like, for example, improving connections with ethnic groups that are underrepresented in civic affairs through specific outreach or leadership programs. Even festivals can serve as a means of drawing people into a light community connection in which you might be able to capture their interest and contact information for more extensive activities.
Many foundations and some government agencies have created special efforts or funds over time to increase the capacity of nonprofit organizations. There are also many examples of nonprofit organizations that have assisted fledgling groups by lending their fiscal status or expertise. Sometimes this assistance has taken the form of nonprofit incubators. Finally, micro grants from government or foundations to support informal civic work have been used in many cities not only as a way of getting civic work done but also to build civic capacity.
By connecting various actors in a community—businesses, residents, faith-based groups, etc.—a city can improve its ability to address important challenges. As defined in the League’s Civic Index, civic capital is “the formal and informal relationships, networks and capacities that communities use to make decisions and solve problems.” Activities to strengthen these relationships and to foster communication across cultures can improve problem-solving capacity long-term.
A very intentional manner of bringing people together to build civic connections and create agreed-upon values is through community conversations. Local governments or other groups can serve as a convenor for such conversations to bring people together to discuss community goals or topics like racial equity.
Now is a great time to engage people who have “put a toe in the water” by helping others during the past year. As Harvard political scientist Nancy L. Rosenblum says in her book “Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America," community involvement following a disaster does not necessarily lead to “permanent, energetic civic engagement.” At the same time, if local institutions offer the means by which people can continue their involvement, some will likely do so.